T. J. On The Wall

A late in the day post, relatively speaking, from me, I know. It’s just that our domestic broadband just went “live,” and I’m taking advantage of it over a cup of coffee. After over a week “in the internet wilderness” (restricted only to spotty and at times even totally unusable mobile broadband), I feel I am properly back with you all! And with solid (and no longer astronomically expensive) net access, in coming days I can FINALLY get the new book polished off! (And then immediately begin fretting over the next volume, which I’ve already started.)

No desk yet, though: the last of this book will be completed on the dining room table. And we’re unpacking still, post-move. I’ve been at it much of the day. I’ve also reconstructed – for the third house – some cool bookshelves we like:

I can be relatively handy, believe it or not. Order slowly arising from the chaos of a house move. Bookshelves reconstructed. Trowbridge, Wiltshire. [Photo by me, 2014.]

I can be relatively handy, believe it or not. Order slowly arising from the chaos of a house move. Bookshelves reconstructed. Trowbridge, Wiltshire. [Photo by me, 2014.]

Getting that done felt good: they are a jigsaw puzzle to rebuild, to say the least. Yes, top left hand corner, is an American flag clock: a gift from my parents back in, I think, 2002. It has been on numerous walls here in Britain over the years. To the top right, caught in frame, that’s a print of Sydney, Australia – a fantastic city we love. Best of all, hey, look at what I unboxed a little while ago:

Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860): "Thomas Jefferson." [Photo by me, 2014.]

Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860): “Thomas Jefferson.” [Photo by me, 2014.]

He’s soon to go up on yet another office wall. That print was another gift many years ago from my parents. Mr. Jefferson has followed me across the Atlantic, and this here in Trowbridge will now be his fifth English home.

It’s no secret. We all know. He was not exactly the biggest fan of the British government of his day:

I am sincerely one of those, & would rather be in dependance on Gr. Br. properly limited than on any nation upon earth, or than on no nation. but I am one of those too who rather than submit to the right of legislating for us assumed by the British parl. & which late experience has shewn they will so cruelly exercise, would lend my hand to sink the whole island in the ocean.

So I find it mildly amusing hanging him up on walls all over the country. I also firmly believe he would have a much more friendly view of the British government of today. I’m also pretty sure he would be ecstatic at the stable republic that eventually evolved on the other side of the Channel. (What he would have thought of the two huge, twentieth century, U.S. military interventions in that country is, of course, another question.)

Have a good what’s left of your Monday, wherever you are in the world. :-)

English Town

A Sunday aside: Here’s “English Town” from “North,” by Matchbox Twenty:

We saw the group perform here in London, at Wembley Arena, in September, 2003. I remember the show was supposed to have taken place earlier in the year – back in late March. However, they canceled that performance at the last minute and rescheduled it due to the assault on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq having (we were told) made it seem inappropiate.

By September, as we know now, that conflict had by then begun to shift into another, much uglier phase. I still recall singer Rob Thomas opening the show telling the audience that we would all try to forget what was going on “outside” for a while. It was clear to everyone in the arena what he was talking about.

image

Years pass. The leaders change, and the enemies change. And the wars change.

Have a good day, wherever you are reading this….

Sneak Peek: A Department Party

As you probably know if you stop by regularly, I’m finishing up the sequel to the first book. Recently, I’ve plunged into re-reading, editing and altering bits here and there. At times it’s a nightmare; at others, fun.

The fun part includes re-reading stuff committed to “paper” a while ago and which hadn’t been read in some time. Seeing such, it’s even possible to laugh to yourself and perhaps think, “I like that.” I had one of those moments yesterday when I was re-reading this Long Island college party situation in the draft:

image

Writing “banter” among half a dozen or so people standing around is challenging. But it has to be done now and then. Realism demands it.

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a professor doing math on a chalk board

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a professor doing math on a chalk board

And if you’ve been to university, you know something else too. It’s not just the students. Among faculty and staff too, higher education can be one big, uh, “flirt zone.”

Not that I’m basing that on any of my own experiences, of course! ;-)

Hope you’re having a good Friday, wherever you may be.

Saturday Interview: All About Vampires

Questioner: Thank you for joining us. Welcome to this major, first-time, blog interview I’m conducting with myself, R. J. Nello – novelist, traveler, expatriate deep thinker, intellectual extraordinaire….

R. J. Nello: What the hell are you talking about with that title? Vampires? There are no vampires in my books. Although as my wife loves to barb me, they are full of French girls….

Q: It’s a grabber. A headline that wows ‘em. We want people passing through to read this, don’t we?

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a vampire.

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a vampire.

Nello: And I’m an intellectual? Thanks for the pat on the back. But you sure as hell haven’t seen my SAT scores.

Q: We’ve got to get those using WordPress reader to stop and look for two seconds at least. Putting your photo up sure won’t work. You’re not an attractive woman.

Nello: Uh, huh. Okay, dude, here’s another grabber: my uncle is friends with a man who was friends with Gore Vidal. Really. Top that? Okay, Vidal’s dead now. But you probably think I mean Al Gore.

Q: No, I don’t.

Nello: Oh, and Sean Connery – yes, that Sean Connery: Mr Bond, Mr. Scottish Independence – once asked for my uncle’s autograph. How’s that also?

Q: Is that why you write, to try to compete with and better your uncle?

Nello: What are you, a psychiatrist? And I don’t think I need one of those. Well, at least not yet….

Q: Okay, to Passports. What got you started? Where did the basic idea for that novel come from?

Nello: James Blunt.

Q: Excuse me?

Nello: I’d always wanted to write non-fiction. I’ve got bl-ody degrees coming out of my…. well, but who gives a damn about what I have to say about anything. Or you for that matter. Everyone’s got an opinion. Like should Scotland be independent? How the hell should I know?

Q: We all have new things to learn?

Nello: Okay, you really wanna know? One morning, I was listening to that “1973” song of Blunt’s on my iPhone for about the 247th time and I thought, ‘He’s too young to remember that year. Hell, even I don’t!’ Ah, but how about circa “1993?” Bingo! My brain shifted forward into a fictionalized historical memoir type thing….

Q: That’s fantastic!

Nello: Wait, I’m not done. Then I made my wife a cup of tea. I stopped thinking at that point. She’s English. Damn it, I can’t be distracted making tea for her. She tells me off if it’s not good.

Q: Obviously evidence of sheer genius in knowing exactly when and how to focus the mind. F. Scott Fitzgerald couldn’t match it. May I have your autograph?

Nello: Look, take it easy with that suck up stuff. It won’t work. Well, buy a copy of my book at least. A little encouragement always helps. We novelists are a fragile lot.

Q: About the content. It sounds fascinating. You’ve written fact as fiction?

Nello: No, I haven’t! You think I wanna get sued? I base my fiction on general events and on people I knew in another century. Sorta my life – very broadly – at one time way back when. But very SORTA. As many a fiction writer has done. It’s not fact. No one in Passports is a real person. Got that? No one. Not a soul.

Q: Understood. So you don’t want to end up in court. Understandable that. Okay, but I’m sure your wife wants to know, “Who’s Isabelle?”

Nello: I’m certainly not telling you. But she knows this much: I dated a French girl in college long before I knew her, today’s lovely, gorgeous, perfect Mrs. Nello. My mother’s reaction at the time was about what you’d expect after she had met mademoiselle: “Are you nuts? They hate us.” Next question.

Q: You used that very line opening a chapter, when one of James’s workmates disparages his going out with her!

Nello: Hey, you did read Passports pre-interview! That’ll win you brownie points for a question or two. I can be as tough as Gore Vidal was on ignorant interviewers, you know. People expect us novelists to be nasty sorts. Bitter. Angry. I’m working on that. Makes us more interesting, I suppose.

Q: Is that girl how you seem to know Isabelle’s mind so well? And that of her friends? What she told you? What you learned from her? All of them?

Nello: Oh, God, more pop psychology. But you’re on the right track again. That’s two good questions. Makes a refreshing change for this dumb interview.

Q: So that’s who she is? That girl from then? Your readers are dying to know?

Nello: Now you’re annoying me. I told you the answer to that. Back up. Don’t badger me. You aren’t Jon Stewart and I’m not some Republican. I swear I’ll get up and walk off this set.

Q: Sorry, sorry. May I ask, do you ever still hear from her?

Nello: The last time was through a relation of hers years after I’d last seen her. Her sister emailed me days after September 11, 2001, asking if everyone we knew in NY was okay. By then they had both married Frenchmen who weren’t too keen on them having male friends outside marriage. Shocker, ain’t it? Even if those male friends were married to other women? Probably because it’s you know, France, and they’re Frenchmen and they know how they themselves might behave…. [cough, cough, François Hollande] and why the hell am I telling you this?

Q: Because I’m the interviewer! Moving on. The tale’s got culture, travel, and politics, yeh; but also love and mushy stuff. Did you fear it perhaps being labeled, uh, “chick lit?”

Nello: I’m a romantic, okay. I admit it. I’m also an historian. Historians are, by definition, romantics. I will admit one of my proofreaders used that phrase. It made me cringe. I wasn’t aiming for that and that’s not what the books are. I also knew the tale isn’t Rambo Returns, Part XVII. No one would call The Winds of War “chick lit,” or Casablanca a “chick flick.” Or maybe they do? Anyway, I suppose anything touching on relationships in which men are also not invading a small country runs the risk of finding itself labeled “romance.”

Q: So what is your goal in writing? Is it artistic? For the generations? Do you hope to make a statement?

Nello: I hope one day my niece and two nephews will be able to cash massive cheques that their dead uncle’s typing and struggles made possible, and then they can write of what a wonderful man I was and how no one ever appreciated me while I was alive and that’s a shame. That’s the English spelling of “check,” by the way, given we’re doing this interview in London.

Q: But what about now? While you’re living? What do you hope to achieve?

Nello: If I’m totally honest, I hope people who stop and read this will buy my book, love it, and tell 900 of their closest friends on Facebook. And then they’ll also contact major film studios demanding, “Have you optioned this? It’s my favorite book! When’s the film version coming out?”

Q: So you’d like to see a film of it? Heh, heh, ya got any French actresses in mind?

Nello: No one you’d know, I’m sure. Like you know French cinema? Did you vote for that buffoon George W. Bush or something? Sorry, sorry, that’s just more Mr. Vidal popping out of me for a moment. Hey, how’s my being moody and nasty working for you interview-wise? Making this more compelling?

Q: You are telling your blog readers a sequel due for November release is in the works. Sounds great. So where are you going from where you left off in the first book?

Nello: Ahem, well, as Albert Camus once said….

Q: Uh, I’ll have to stop you there, Mr. Nello. It’s been an unadulterated pleasure speaking with you. I’m sorry, but we’ve run out of time. And frankly, I’ve had enough.

Nello: But I didn’t finish sharing my Camus quote? Damn it, I knew I should have held out for Charlie Rose.

_____
UPDATE: The interview continues here. ;-)

Life: Endless Source Material

I spoke to my parents last night. I thought it was going to be a routine chat. What was I thinking?

“Rob, we had an incident,” my Dad calmly started to explain. “My Zoll defibrillator went nuts.”

I wasn’t sure what he was talking about. “What?”

Zoll Life Vest.

Zoll Life Vest.

He detailed what had happened. “Monday, I took it off to wash. After putting it back on, I walked downstairs. At the bottom of the stairs, the alarm went off. You can’t misunderstand it. What a f-cking noise! Holy s-it!”

He was laughing, so I realized there had been no problem. They had spoken to Zoll, and the woman operator said he probably had not dried himself enough after his shower. Likely a bit of moisture impacted an electrode.

“Your mother was in the kitchen on the phone with your uncle,” my Dad continued.

“Oh, God, not him!” I laughed. The literary giant. “Of all the times.”

“Yep. She comes running out to me, and while the alarm is blaring its electronic voice is also yelling, ‘Don’t touch him! Don’t touch him!’ I pushed the button and silenced it, so it knew I wasn’t unconscious and it didn’t defibrillate me.”

I sat here, 3,000 miles away in London, listening to this semi-farce.

“Your mother dropped the phone at the alarm, so your uncle heard the alarm and all the commotion. After she got back to the phone, he started screaming at her to put me on. ‘Is he okay?! What’s going on? You want me to call someone?!’ Then he starts complaining his breathing is bothering him.”

I held my head. “You’re a comedy, the three of you.”

The Zoll operator asked for an upload of my Dad’s heart data off the device, just to double-check his heart hadn’t “malfunctioned” in any way. He did so promptly. She called back and said his data was fine.

Speaking with her after the “all-clear” had been determined, he said he laughed, “That thing going off like that almost gave me a heart attack!”

As a fiction writer, no way should you ever say you’ve run out of material. If you have, you’ve stopped living. Life is an endless source. ;-)

Presidential Stamps

Going through those old family photos on Sunday, we also found a large envelope. It had been sent in the 1920s to London by ancestors of my wife who were living in California. I noticed the stamps – and the prices:

1920s U.S. stamps. [Photo by me, 2014.]

1920s U.S. stamps. [Photo by me, 2014.]

“Whoa,” I said to my wife. “Andrew Jackson and John Tyler stamps? 17 cents to mail that big envelope from the U.S. That was a lot of money in those days.”

“Tyler?” she asked.

“John Tyler,” I repeated. “He was a president in the early 1840s. He followed William Henry Harrison, who’d followed Martin van Buren.”

Tyler she didn’t recall. But she knows van Buren.

Our family happens to be Martin fans. :-)

******SPOILER ALERT******

******If you have not seen Charade with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn STOP reading here.******

“Think they’re worth anything?” she asked me.

I shook my head. Somehow, I suspect they aren’t likely worth a fortune. ;-)

Armed To The Teeth

In response to events in Ferguson, Missouri, there has been a lot of discussion in recent days about the “militarization” of U.S. policing. Much of the talk lays the blame for this as rooted in the Pentagon’s casting off since 1997 of military surplus that is scooped up eagerly by police departments across the country. But the issue isn’t really that “new,” though: it has been evolving for decades.

For example, I recall how, in the early 1980s (I believe), a New York City police officer involved in a shootout with a suspect, was killed when his NYPD-issue six-shooter emptied and he was caught reloading. The killer possessed a stronger weapon with more bullets than the police officer’s. Subsequently, the NYPD “upgunned” and vowed no officer would ever be “outgunned” by a criminal ever again.

More recently, Newtown police responding to the Sandy Hook school massacre in 2012 approached that building as if they were trying to take an enemy position in Normandy in 1944. Indeed, the shooter had enough weaponry – bought legally by his mother, whom he had already killed – on him that he might well have been able to have held Omaha Beach singlehandedly for some time.

It’s no secret that firearms saturate the U.S. As a consequence, a police officer approaches you warily. If he so much as stops someone for speeding, he never knows if at the car window he will be staring down the barrel of a gun. With much of the U.S. populace owning ever more powerful weaponry, police forces have responded by more heavily arming in the face of that public they in many respects greatly fear.

Free Stock Photo: An armored SWAT vehicle in the 2010 Saint Patricks Day Parade in Atlanta, Georgia.

Free Stock Photo: An armored SWAT vehicle in the 2010 Saint Patricks Day Parade in Atlanta, Georgia.

In Britain, routine interaction with police is far less tense than in the U.S. If you encounter a U.K. police officer, he is probably “armed” with a night stick and a radio. Because of the country’s incredibly strict gun control laws, in return he knows you probably aren’t carrying a gun either.

What’s the solution in the U.S.? There probably isn’t one. U.S. police will always feel (not without reason, as Sandy Hook, for one, proved) that they need heavy weaponry as long as much of the populace is armed to the teeth. In turn, much of the populace has no desire not to be armed to the teeth…. because, after all, the police are.
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UPDATE: From the New Yorker:

Of course, the militarization of the police is not entirely new. SWAT teams date back at least to the late sixties in Los Angeles. During the eighties and nineties, many big police forces armed their officers with automatic weapons, and, partly to prosecute the war on drugs, some police departments acquired some pretty heavy weaponry. But it was 9/11 that really changed things. Under the guise of beefing up their anti-terrorist operations, police forces across the country acquired all sorts of military uniforms and hardware, sometimes using federal grants to pay for them.

Quite true. We can’t forget 9/11’s aftermath as contributing as well. Worth bearing in mind also, though, is that Britain has also invested a great deal in its own domestic post-9/11 anti-terror policing efforts, and it has done so without the overt military-style approach one sees in U.S. policing.

Dad’s Home (And Quite Alive)

We’ve had a wonderful surprise: my Dad was released from the hospital last night. He’s home and looks remarkable following his ordeal. Fingers crossed it may continue….

En route to their house in Pennsylvania, I landed at Newark yesterday at just after 1 pm. It took me an hour to get thru the airport. First, it took an age for my lone bag to appear. It was followed by a huge queue at Customs caused by all those lining up to hand in that archaic customs form: Welcome to the Land of Paper Work the Free. (I would not want to be a non-English speaker having to complete that jargon-ridden form, next to be greeted by scowling customs officers scrutinizing it. It should be gotten rid of. The EU manages with customs exit channels in which you “declare” or “don’t,” simply by exiting through “red” or “green” doorways.)

Those formalities were followed by a wait to get the rental car. I got away finally at 2:30 after I’d called my Mom. I reached their house about 4pm. By 4:05 we were in my sister’s car headed for the hospital.

Free Stock Photo: This historic 1930s photograph depicted a nurse in a starched cap and uniform, washing her hands in an improved, bacteria-controled environment. The improvements included the tiled walls, and the towel machine above the sink.

Free Stock Photo: This historic 1930s photograph depicted a nurse in a starched cap and uniform, washing her hands in an improved, bacteria-controled environment. The improvements included the tiled walls, and the towel machine above the sink.

In transit, I was out of touch much of the day. I arrived to find Dad was to be discharged within hours! To do so, his doctor insisted he wear a Zoll Life Vest.

It is to be worn all the time except while showering. It monitors the heart’s actions. If anything “bad” happens, it shocks the heart. (At which time my mother calls the doctor, the company, and 911.) That is a rare happening; but if it does, it is far more timely than awaiting paramedics or driving him to the hospital. The woman who set it up explained it to him (to all of us) that usually it is worn for several months. Once a week, he has to upload the accumulated data on the device to the Zoll company just by plugging the device into the company’s modem, which my parents connect to their landline. The info goes to his doctor.

On the drive back to their house, while my Mom and sister stepped into a pharmacy to fill his prescriptions, waiting in my sister’s car my Dad told me he was happy I am here. He agreed my Mom needed a break and that she’d relax more now with me around. I will be here a week at minimum. Everyone has rallied around. Lots of people on two continents have been inquiring about him. Facebook’s Messenger has been abuzz for days.

When we were sitting in the lounge with Hot In Cleveland on the TV last night, Dad in his chair (LifeVest on of course), I said I couldn’t believe we were here. I added that when I had gotten on the plane this morning, I never would have even hoped this is where we would be. It is all a great relief. I had been thinking, quite seriously, the end was near.

Oh, do I feel jet-lagged today? Not at all (yet). On the contrary, I feel great! :-)

“Natalie” Meet “Stéphane”

English Natalie and French Stéphane have been mentioned here just once before, and then only while discussing someone else. I’d not included them in my characters’ summaries. They deserve further explanation.

“Stéphane” is a cobbling together of views I’ve heard out of a variety of Frenchmen over the years. One example:

As Natalie focused on Isabelle briefly, Stéphane observed, smiling, “You know, James, a friend of mine works in a big medical research place. You know the language the Germans and Japanese and French and Americans and others speak at work? English! In Paris!” He laughed.

He owes his looks mostly to a one man I’d met a couple of times in Paris. His confident, friendly, outgoing demeanor, and excellent English, come largely from that real man as well. Here’s another bit from an exchange with James:

“My parents used to bring us on holidays to France,” Natalie explained. “Isabelle probably told you I met Stéphane in London. I thought, ‘Oh, not bad for a Frenchman!’”

Stéphane kidded Natalie in turn. “And I thought you were attractive for an English girl!”

“Natalie” comes to us primarily owing to inspiration provided by an English undergrad I knew while working in a Long Island college in the 1990s. Stick thin, thin blonde hair, huge blue eyes, and seemingly always smiling, she greatly enjoyed studying in the U.S. She knew she was exaggerating about England, yet joked to me once in her rather Sloaney accent, “Oh, it’s always raining, and everyone always has a cold.”

She was also a Francophile. And she spoke French well; but she voiced frustration French people she knew were always on at her to speak with them in English because they wanted to work on their own English with a native English speaker. I get that point in too, when Natalie greets Isabelle and Virginie at Isabelle’s fourth floor apartment door:

“That’s some walk up,” Natalie replied, breathing heavily. “May we speak French? I always need the practice.”

“I was hoping we could speak English,” Virginie answered in English. “I need the practice. Isa does too!”

I once asked her, “Why are you here in New York and not Paris?”

She replied, “My father’s company sent him here. Ah, but if they’d sent him to Paris?” [A broad grin and mischievous wink followed.]

A certain “class” of the English tend not raise their voice during an argument, or when angered; instead they become cooler and cooler. She fit that stereotype. Here’s one sample of how I portrayed and fictionalized that aspect of the character: Natalie quietly complains to Isabelle about her cousin Maddie’s American roommate’s appalling behavior during summer school in Italy:

“She managed to get a part-time job in a club,” Natalie continued. “Maddie says she’s sure the girl’s got no work visa, so it must be an illegal cash job. She comes home with losers and smokes cannabis with them too. Bible-waving Americans think Europeans have no morals? A load of old tosh.”

Fictionalizing an Anglo-French couple having met in London and now living in Paris was aided by my encounters with several French in Britain. One person in particular unwittingly helped: a Frenchwoman in an Anglo-French marriage. “Simone” and I worked together in London for over five years.

Flags of France (l) and England.

Flags of France (l) and England.

We had lunch a few times only the two of us. (It was normally a small mob.) I always hate talking shop over lunches. So when provided with any one-on-one opportunity, I usually sought to get her to share a bit about her life in France.

In turn, she’d sit in the pub with her glass of red wine (seriously; but never mind about that), and angle instead to talk with me mostly about England and us foreigners living in the country. She once observed wryly, “I came to London to get a Ph.D. I ended up with an English husband, and no Ph.D.”

Unsurprisingly the U.S. normally also came up. She had visited America – Florida – only once, and had never been to New York. Nevertheless, she knew a great deal about the country, and was intensely interested in it. Maybe that was why hearing details about my life back in New York was also of interest to her?

Take a wild guess. Which of us regularly prevailed when it came to the choice of pub lunch conversational topics? Hint: it sure as heck wasn’t me.

In writing these novels, I’ve come to feel the entire concept of “fiction” could itself be termed “fictional.” F. Scott FitzgeraldErnest HemingwayHow many others? Locales may be altered, names are changed, individuals blended together, facts rearranged and repositioned so they best suit a narrative, but novelists certainly derive characters and plots from their own real life experiences.

I readily admit, I have. ;-)

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See related:
Quick Take 8: (Our Leading Lady) “Isabelle”
Quick Take 7: “Maki”
Quick Take 6: “Mark”
Quick Take 5: “James” (Where It All Starts)
Russians
Quick Take 4: “Béatrice”
Quick Take 3: “Uncle Bill”
Quick Take 2: “Valérie”
Quick Take: “Virginie”